In the main square of Asolo there is a traditional bar and cafe. It is called the Caffe Centrale. It is the focus of village life. A long metal-topped bar stretches the length of the building. Smartly dressed waiters in dark trousers and white shirts move efficiently through the tables. Behind the bar there is a monumental collection of bottles, containing every type of spirit, liqueur and ‘digestivo’. Glass cabinets are filled with panini, dolce, salads. I’ve been coming here for the last thirty years.
Some people choose to stand at the bar and grab a quick espresso on the way to work. Others sit at the marble tables enjoying a cappuccino or a tea. A mother and child enjoy a hot drink and a pastry together. The local police chief pops in and shakes hands with everyone. He’s in a rush he’s got to get to work. A father and daughter sit on another table drinking herbal tea and looking at a newspaper together. A couple of older gentlemen sit in the window, reading the local paper. There’s two ladies, they’ve got to be tourists, sitting on the comfortable seats at the edge of the room. One is an artist, she is carefully identifying details of the cafe, and doing simple pencil sketches. I try not to stare. The other is typing on a lap top. I wonder what she’s writing. I think they might be Scottish or Dutch. It’s hard to tell.
I’ve been here so long I don’t know what nationality I am any more. My passport says British, but it’s been a long time since I spent time in England. Claudio, the waiter asks me if I want a top up. I always have Breakfast Tea and usually by now the pot is too strong, it needs diluting with a spot of hot water. Today is no exception, and I respond with a nod. The hot water arrives immediately. I pour myself another cup. I’m well known in this town, part of the furniture really. I came here to live a solitary existence, just me and my books and my writing. Funnily enough it hasn’t worked out quite as I expected. Last week I got a very official looking letter from London announcing the imminent arrival of a very important person. I’m happy to act as a host and to provide introductions as required. But I draw the line at accommodating visitors in my house. I don’t like the invasion of privacy. However, I do confess I’ve always liked Elizabeth and we do share a love of gardening.
No doubt her visit to Asolo will be part of a whistle stop tour, that’s how they do things these days. Funny really, my attitude to travel has always been the absolute opposite. Even now a trip for me has to be a big trip, a couple of months at least. That for me is real travel. It takes time to get to know people and work out the lie of the land. It took me months to develop any kind of trust with the Arabs when I was travelling inland from Aleppo towards the Euphrates. I always smile to myself when I think of the courtesy and respect that was invariably extended on my journeys. Apart of course from that dreadful desert camp in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always been quite courageous, fool-hardy some might say, but that night as a guest of the Bedouin in Raqqa was deeply unpleasant. A wild and lawless frontier town. I was exhausted in the morning, I’d spent the entire night with one eye open. I try not to dwell on the fate of those kind people that protected me on my travels.
The publishers want a draft manuscript by the end of the month. I’m not sure that I can meet their demands. Now with a guest arriving it will definitely be impossible. My tea is finished. The cafe is empty. Just the tourists and me. They are still engrossed in their activities. I stand to leave, it takes a while, I’m not as sprightly as I used to be. The woman writing looks up. She stands up and walks towards me, ‘Excuse me she says,’ smiling broadly, ‘Might I ask, are you Dame Freya Stark’. I reply forcefully in the affirmative. ‘May I offer you a drink’ she continues, ‘It is such a great pleasure to meet an intrepid traveller’. ‘Let’s have a gin and tonic, it’s a small celebration’. Well what can I say – I agree. From time to time fame or should I say notoriety has its advantages. After all I’ll need to increase my consumption of gin and tonic if I’m going to keep up with Liz.